Editor's note:

On October 31, 2018, Vanda Felbab-Brown submitted a statement for the record for the the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of the House of Commons, Canada on developments in Somalia, for a hearing on Somalia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her testimony was originally published here.

I am a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC where I specialize in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, stabilization, illicit economies, organized crime and urban violence. One of the areas I focus on is Somalia where I travel regularly.

My testimony below represents my personal views only and does not reflect the views of Brookings, its other scholars, employees, officers, and/or trustees. As an independent think tank, The Brookings Institution does not take institutional positions on any issue.

My latest fieldwork in Somalia in December 2017 was part of a UN University (UNU) project on amnesty, leniency, and defectors’ programs in Somalia, Nigeria, and Iraq, The Limits of Punishment: Transitional Justice and Violent Extremism (UNU, June 2018), funded by United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID). Sections of my statement for the record draw on my chapter in that volume — “The Hard, Hot, Dusty Road to Accountability, Reconciliation, and Peace in Somalia: Amnesties, Defectors programs, Traditional Justice, Informal Reconciliation Mechanisms, and Punitive Responses to al-Shabab”. My written statement for the record does not represent the views of UNU or DFID; it reflects my personal views only. 


Since 1991, Somalia has been battered by undulating phases of a civil war playing out among the country’s many fractious clans, larger entities aspiring to statehood, warlords, and Islamist groups. State institutions, including the security apparatus, have experienced a profound collapse. Despite extensive international efforts for three decades to rebuild state institutions and stabilize the country, Mogadishu-based national governments have had limited operational capacity and physical reach into much of the country. Critically, they have been debilitated by parochial political competition among the country’s clans and powerbrokers. Thus, the official state has been mostly unable to deliver even a modicum of governance to local populations while battling strong and agile military opponents and separatism. Characteristically, the most effective, even if brutal, stabilizing actors in Somalia have been Islamist groups. More than other contestants for power, they have been able to rise above clan divisions and administer a uniform rule, protect marginalized minority clans, and deliver swift, predictable, and non-corrupt justice.

Yet because of their connections to global jihadist movements, including active participation in vicious terrorism abroad and in Somalia, and significant human rights abuses, rule by the country’s jihadi groups has been unacceptable to the international community as well as resented by Somalis. Nonetheless, when international or Somali military efforts have liberated territories, clan infighting and discrimination have often broken out, and the state has often failed with adequate and equitable governance.

Experiencing multiple iterations of jihadi groups able to control large territories amidst state collapse, the government of Somalia is currently battling the Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, commonly referred to as al Shabab, and its splinter faction, the Islamic State. At its peak, between 2009 and 2011, al Shabab controlled most of southern Somalia, including Mogadishu. Since 2012, an international military intervention by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), composed of forces from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and Djibouti,

in combination with Somali clan militias and the vestiges of Somali national forces (SNF) supported by the larger international community, has succeeded in wrestling control of large parts of Somalia from al Shabab. But since 2015, military efforts against al Shabab have stalled, the capacity of Somali national forces remains minimal, and AMISOM is reducing its presence. Meanwhile, al Shabab, because of its delivery of pan-clan governance, remains deeply entrenched and undefeated. So the prospect is for conflict to intensify and insecurity to worsen.

International efforts to improve the capacity of the Somali government have registered some important progress: Somalia successfully, albeit quite imperfectly, conducted two presidential and parliamentary elections. Crucially, it has embarked on a major political and institutional overhaul, including the writing of a new constitution and formation of federal states.

Yet significant tensions and disagreements between the federal government and federal states persist. In 2018, this had produced an intense months-long crisis. Meanwhile, corruption and clientelism run rampant and affect every sector and level of government, business, and society.

Also the political crisis among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has significantly negatively affected Somalia, with external actors exacerbating tensions between the government of Somalia and opposition politicians and between the federal government, particularly President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed and federal states.

The Military Battlefield

Al Shabab still controls tracts of rural central, southern, and western Somalia, including in the regions of Lower and Middle Juba, Lower and Middle Shabelle, Hiraan, Gedo, Bay and Bakool, Mudug, Galguduud, and Puntland, as well as major roads throughout the country. It regularly takes over major towns, particularly as some AMISOM forces, such as from Ethiopia, have started to withdraw. AMISOM has been plagued by intelligence, logistical, and mandate deficiencies and rivalries among contributing members. It lacks offensive capabilities, rapid strike forces, adequate airlift and mobility assets, and force enablers and supporters. Funding uncertainty also continues to plague the mission. In January 2016 the uncertainty and AMISOM dissatisfaction with payments worsened when, for multiple reasons, the European Union (EU), the sole entity paying the salaries of AMISOM soldiers, decreased its stipend contribution by 20 percent (from US$1,028 per soldier per month to US$822).As of September 2018, the EU was yet to define its funding commitment to AMISOM beyond 2018.

AMISOM forces have been mostly in a static garrison lockdown since 2015, having exhausted their offensive and counterinsurgency capacities, at the cost of significant loss of life for some of the member countries. To the extent that new offensive operations against al Shabab are mounted by ground forces, they are mostly conducted by clan militias and local warlords and their forces, sometimes along with local or state police forces known as darawish (often mostly more institutionalized militias).

Neither AMISOM nor the Somalia National Army (SNA) have developed adequate military holding capacity after clearing operations. Because of lack of local language capacities, overstretch, and its weak force-protection posture, it rarely engages proactively with local populations in areas of its garrisons. As a result, the crucial holding function once again is left to clan and warlord militias. AMISOM, like the SNA, explicitly rely on and use clan militias, though these actors subscribe to no international standards of conduct, face no accountability for their human rights violations, and often use child soldiers. Unable to receive formal international salary assistance, beyond clandestine income from foreign intelligence services operating in Somalia, these militias engage in extensive extortion and predation of local communities, discrimination against rival clans, and the theft of their resources, such as land or water, as well as rapes. Although the total number of militiamen may be in the tens of thousands, there is currently no demobilization program for the militias. However, local communities complain equally of extortion, predation, and land and resources theft by various factions of the SNA and Somali National Police (SNP). Like Somalia’s intelligence services, the SNA and SNP are extensively infiltrated by al Shabab operatives.

In May 2017, the government of Somalia, with backing from international partners and buy-in from Somalia’s federal states, presented a national security pact defining Somalia’s national security architecture. Under the Security Pact, which envisions Somalia’s security apparatus to be “able, accountable, affordable, and acceptable” to Somali society, federal states were to integrate their regional forces into the SNA. At least some of the militias were also to be integrated into state and national police forces. However, as the planned size of the SNA is to be 18,000 and the size of future federal and state police capped at 32,000, there will not be enough space in the formal security sector for many existing state, clan, and warlord militia members. Many other challenges regarding the force structure persist. Moreover, given the crisis in relations between the federal government and federal states that has persisted throughout most of 2018, the federal states’ commitment to such integration of forces appears to have dissipated.

Meanwhile, the Somali national forces remain notoriously undertrained and under-equipped as well as corrupt. The SNA consists mostly of ineffective battalions that are unable to pair up with AMISOM even for joint holding operations, let alone offensive actions against al Shabab. Despite extensive allocation of resources to training, the SNA itself remains a hodgepodge of local clan forces and militias and are riddled by clan and patronage cleavages, resulting in various units fighting each other, such as over control of checkpoints that can be exploited for illegal rent extraction. Nominally, the Somali Ministry of Defense has some 29,000 on its payroll, but of that number only 12,000 may actually be fighters, with the rest widows and the elderly. Debilitatingly, money for police officers and soldier salaries, paid for by the international community, are often stolen in Mogadishu, thus undermining the morale and cohesion of the government’s forces. The Operational Readiness Assessment that the Somali government undertook of the SNA in late 2017 revealed deficiencies across the board of the entire military, from command and control,  to cohesion, training, equipment, logistics and enabler support, morale, corruption, and factionalism. It remains to be seen whether the federal government will be able to undertake the necessary reforms.

In 2018, AMISOM began the transition process for greater reliance on Somali forces, slightly reducing its presence in Somalia, following the informal withdrawal of Ethiopian forces in 2017. But in July 2018, recognizing the woeful lack of readiness of the Somali security forces and the entrenchment of al Shabab, the United Nations Security Council extended AMISOM’s mandate. Instead of AMISOM’s mission ending in 2020 as previously planned, Somali security forces are to remain in the lead of Somalia’s security. AMISOM — whose country contingents are to various degrees embedded in numerous legal and illegal forms of Somalia’s political economy, such as charcoal, fuel, and sugar trading and smuggling, has engaged in only limited transition planning with the international community and the Somali government. The unannounced withdrawals of several Ethiopian military contingents in Somalia had left behind significant power vacuums, rapidly filled by al Shabab and significantly worsening the security of local civilian populations. Al Shabab has thus been able to expand its territorial reach and regain some previously lost territory. In early 2018, some elements of a transition plan were agreed to, but execution has lagged substantially behind.

The prospect currently is for large gaps between AMISOM’s drawdowns and eventual withdrawal and the readiness of the Somali forces. The SNA remains unprepared to fill even the existing security role of AMISOM.

Al Shabab’s current strength is estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 active combatants. In 2017, al Shabab engaged in intensified recruitment among Somalia’s many unemployed young men and resorted to significantly increasing forcible abductions of children. And while the tempo and number of security incidents during 2017 fluctuated and in the latter part of the year went down, the severity of attacks — from bloody terrorist incidents in Mogadishu to takeover of towns as close to Mogadishu as thirty kilometers — increased. Al Shabab has also resorted to charging more frequent and more pervasive zakat fees on any economic activity.

Although al Shabab  is strongest in the lower parts of Somalia, such as the lower Juba and lower Shabelle areas, it is not geographically confined. It also retains operational military capacity in the northern federal states of Puntland and Somaliland; and south of Puntland some form of its presence is widespread, such as in the imposition and collection of taxes. In addition to systematically collecting taxes in Mogadishu and throughout the country, al Shabab regularly conducts bomb attacks and assassinations in Mogadishu, as well as major terrorist attacks in Kenya (previously also in Uganda). Even major towns firmly held by anti-Shabab forces, such as Kismayo, where Ahmed Madobe’s militias and the Kenyan Defense Forces rule, can be surrounded by territories held by al Shabab.

Anti-Shabab actors, including AMISOM and the Somali national forces, thus rely on U.S. air strikes to limit al Shabab’s often-successful attacks against their installations. The presence of U.S. soldiers in Somalia increased significantly in 2017, doubling to more than 500. However, as such attacks on al Shabab significantly increased in the latter part of 2017, and allegedly caused civilian casualties and exacerbated clan grievances, al Shabab was able to exploit such claims. Moreover, the U.S. air campaign has suffered the same limitations as AMISOM offensives: in the absence of holding forces, the airstrikes merely disperse al Shabab to other areas, including to Mogadishu, even as the U.S. tries to hit al Shabab vehicles to prevent their movement. Beyond air support, U.S. Special Operations Forces also operate on the ground, targeting al Shabab and the Islamic State and advising and assisting Somalia’s elite commando units in counterterrorism operations. But even such operations against high-value targets are constrained in their ultimate effectiveness without enhanced security capacities of the Somali forces and improved governance.

Moreover, al Shabab is not the only militant actor in Somalia. More than 60 warring parties are present in in the country, from clan and warlord militias to various other militant groups, such as the Sufi al Sunna or the Islamic State. A splinter group of al Shabab, the Islamic State has been based mostly in Puntland, a major entry-point for various illicit and smuggling networks and a former hub of Somali pirates. Lately, the Islamic State appears to have expanded its operations also to Mogadishu. Nonetheless, in comparison to al Shabab, it remains a much weaker militant group.

Non-Military Approaches: Defectors’ Programs

The government of Somalia and the international community have principally relied on militarily defeating al Shabab; and there is no immediate prospect for Somali government negotiations with al Shabab. However, aware of the limits of the military counterinsurgency efforts, the Somali government has completed the military efforts with declarations of amnesties for jihadi militants, ad hoc political deals with splinter groups, and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR)-like programs for defectors and populations living under militant rule. Their purpose is to weaken al Shabab on the battlefield. Somali government officials and implementing international partners report that al Shabab defectors numbering in the low thousands have gone through such programs.

The government has not yet undertaken any similar DDR-like efforts toward the myriad of clan and warlord militias that exit in Somalia. Efforts at reintegration of former combatants from al Shabab and beyond, and at clan and community reconciliation, have also taken place through non-governmental programs and traditional justice mechanisms.

Two sets of Somali government-led non-punitive processes have been under way: 1) ad hoc political deals with so-called high-value defectors who receive protection and red-carpet treatment from the Somali government and face no accountability or scrutiny for their past behavior; and 2) DDR-like rehabilitation programs for al Shabab defectors who are assessed by Somali intelligence officials to  pose a low risk of returning to violent terrorism and proselytizing or providing logistical support for al Shabab.  The defectors’ program consists of five phases: outreach, reception, screening, rehabilitation, and reintegration. The rehabilitation component of the low-risk defector program is administered at three facilities –the Serendi center in Mogadishu, a center in Baidoa, and a center in Kismayo – by two international implementing partners.

Those defectors who are assessed as high-risk as well as high-risk detainees are sent to military courts widely perceived not to adhere to international human rights standards. The courts mostly sentence those convicted to the death penalty. The international community has worked hard to persuade a reluctant government of Somalia to try high-risk defectors and detainees in civilian courts, and to that effect has built a special civilian court in Mogadishu.

Little transparency exists as to how defectors are received by either African Union forces or Somali authorities. The screening process is equally non-transparent and raises a high possibility that populations who lived under al Shabab rule and were forced to work for al Shabab even in ordinary tasks, such as cooking and washing, are caught up in the screening process, and at best judged as low-risk defectors. Despite the development of draft standard operating procedures for screening to reduce the arbitrariness of high-risk and low-risk judgements, a substantial risk persists of arbitrariness as to who is assessed as high risk and thus likely to be sentenced to death.

The government-led effort that has received the most support from the international community, the program for low-risk defectors, has registered the greatest improvements and progress in its operations, such as in separating children from exploitative adults and improving exit procedures. Prior to 2015, the exit procedures were opaque and arbitrary, defectors often languished in the facilities for years, and the facilities at times overlapped with detention. But major challenges persist. These include: the controversial role and presence of Somali intelligence services at the rehabilitation facilities; little harmonization across the centers; the lack of any rehabilitation facilities for female defectors, detainees, and women who lived under al Shabab rule; the underdevelopment of reinsertion and rehabilitation programming for receiving communities and the communities’ reconciliation with former al Shabab associates and among rival and subordinate and dominant clans; and the lack of job opportunities for former al Shabab combatants and associates who, amidst overall high unemployment, frequently join the Somali military or intelligence services or militias.

Other large problems loom over these programs: the lack of a legal framework; high corruption and lack of adherence to international human rights laws by Somali government institutions; the lack of a parallel effort to disarm and transform clan and warlord militias; high persisting clan conflict and discrimination; and the country’s prevalent politics of exclusion and marginalization.

Crucially, difficulties balancing leniency, forgiveness, and battlefield pragmatism on the one hand with accountability, justice, and victims’ rights on the other hand, and hence societal acceptance of or disquiet with such measures affects all three sets of processes for high-value defectors, high-risk defectors and detainees, and low-risk defectors. Resentments are created by perceptions that high-value al Shabab defectors receive a red-carpet treatment from the Somali government and complete impunity and low-level defectors receive support such as literacy, numeracy, and vocational training, in addition to religious deradicalization, while the receiving communities continue to exist in poverty and without any government services.

There is also a deep belief among many Somali civil society representatives that the root cause of Somalia’s multifaceted problems is the profound and pervasive impunity of the powerful, and the fear that non-punitive approaches, such as the high-value and even the low-risk defectors’ programs, only augment this sense of impunity. Women representatives in particular voice such views.

Emblematic of such complexities and sensitivities is the case of Mukhtar Robow, a former spokesman of al Shabab and the group’s deputy leader. Although long on a U.S. capture-or-kill list and widely accused of severe human rights violations, Robow struck a deal with the Government of Somalia in August 2017, and since has been conducting a prominent political life in Mogadishu and the South West State of Somalia. In addition to receiving armed protection from the Somali government, he was able to keep his personal militia, whose members, like him, have not been subject to any judicial or amnesty process or other accountability or truth-telling measures. Such total impunity and complete disregard for victims’ rights have deeply angered Somalia’s civil society.

The government of Somalia expected that Robow would either fight al Shabab or use his importance in the Rahaweyn clan to persuade other Rahaweyn fighters of al Shabab to disarm. Such expectations have not materialized, however. Instead, Robow has engaged in an intense political power struggle in the South West State, dominated by the Rahaweyn clan. Despite opposition from the federal government, Robow has been campaigning for the presidency of the South West State in elections to be held in November 2018. The federal government sought to bar him from running, citing extant international sanctions against him. But the chairman of the elections committee of the South West State cleared him to participate. In the absence of a formalized and approved constitution, it is disputed whether the federal government or the federal state is the proper authority to decide who can run in federal elections. Along with the rest of the elections committee members, the chairman has since resigned, but Robow continues to campaign, defying control of the federal government and successfully manipulating local politics.

Clearly, non-punitive approaches to former low-risk al Shabab combatants, clans aligned with al Shabab because of prior discrimination, and populations who lived under al Shabab rule are needed. They can prevent new injustice to those who had to endure al Shabab rule, and they can reduce violence, and facilitate achieving a deep peace which avoids endless cycles of violence and discrimination and counter-revenge. However, emphasizing accountability in creative ways beyond imprisonment, as tending to well as victims’ rights and reparations are equally essential for a lasting peace.

Governance and Politics

The political context in Somalia remains as fraught and fractured as the military battlefield. Although sub-federal state formation has been under way in Somalia since 2015 — a most positive development — the process is tense with inter-state and state-federal government rivalries over territories, control of armed forces, resource-sharing, and power-delegation.

Clan discriminations and rivalries continue to prevail and debilitate governance, producing hung governments unable to produce laws and policy at the federal level and incessant political infighting and discrimination against minorities also at the federal level. The legal formalization of the 2012 provisional constitution as well as of some of Somalia’s existing six states are yet to take place. Recent efforts to create pan-clan political parties as a result of new electoral legislation, attempts change the rules of impeachment to limit this frequent tool of political and financial extortion, and mechanisms to strengthen the capacity of the federal government to provide revenues to federal entities are  beacons of hope that the political and clan infighting can diminish in the future.

In the meantime, however, Somalia is often considered to be the poorest, least developed, and most collapsed and corrupt country in the world, and critically dependent on foreign aid. Building of state institutions, or extending any form of federal state or national state presence, remains a distant prospect in many parts of the country beyond regional capitals or major economic hubs. Formal taxing capacity remains constrained, with many business community members questioning why they should pay taxes when they receive back neither physical infrastructure, nor security, nor an educated work force. Of course, the government is not able to provide such public goods in the absence of tax revenues, although the current government of President Mohamed did manage to increase the collection of taxes on the airport and seaport in Mogadishu, no small accomplishment amidst pervasive corruption and theft of foreign aid and tax revenues.

In the context of the persisting clan and political infighting, al Shabab finds a constant lease on life. It continues to adroitly insert itself into these clan rivalries and the rapacious and predatory abuse of power by official ruling entities, including land theft, and to obtain local support or at least acceptance. It tends to offer its protection to minority clans against dominant clans, and surprisingly exhibits a great deal of effectiveness in mitigating clan conflict and not appearing beholden to particular clans. In fact, when al Shabab is displaced from an area militarily, clan conflict and associated land and resource theft subsequently tends to explode, replacing a brutal order with renewed insecurity. The membership of the militant group itself, though containing significant numbers of Hawiyes, is pan-clan.

Nor is al Shabab an entity isolated from either Somalia’s people or its powerbrokers. Al Shabab members tend to go in and out of the movement and sometimes interact with their home communities. Within a family, there may well be members in al Shabab as well as in the government forcers, often in communication with each other. Crucially, both political powerbrokers and powerful businessmen often rely on al Shabab to maintain the security, exclusivity, and hegemony of their economic interests in particular areas, in exchange for paying al Shabab zakat. Many powerful economic actors, engaged in exclusionary monopolistic deals and violence against rivals, thus see little benefit from an end to fighting in Somalia.

Moreover, al Shabab is significantly better able to provide security for the movement of vehicles and individuals on the roads it controls than are other actors. Militias and police and SNA units often charge varying, multiple, and high fees, along their segments of the road; and cargo and people are still subject to ambushes, robberies, and rapes. In contrast, checkpoints manned by al Shabab charge one uniform fee, with entering vehicles receiving a receipt, and the people and cargo allowed to proceed safely.

Al Shabab also outcompetes other actors in Somalia in its capacity to deliver justice and dispute resolution. It retains a reputation for delivering swift, effective, and, crucially, non-corrupt and fair rulings to disputes based on sharia. Thus even people from government held territories, and by some anecdotal accounts occasionally even policemen, go to al Shabab for dispute resolution. In contrast, the formal judiciary is perceived as overwhelmingly corrupt, dominated by certain clans, and operating on the basis of outdated 1960s statutes, thus delivering dispute outcomes based on bribes and clan standing. Even though efforts are under way to improve the neutrality and functionality of the formal judiciary, a long and complicated road lies ahead. Less arbitrary and corrupt formal justice procedures are of course also dependent on the functionality of police and its ability to gather evidence of crime, a precondition that rarely exists in Somalia.

Al Shabab thus takes advantage of and embraces legitimate grievances of the population, from political and clan injustice and marginalization to the corruption of the judiciary and government institutions. However, al Shabab also overreaches in its brutality and the tightness of control it imposes. Beyond brutal sharia punishment, such as stoning or cutting of limbs, hardly acceptable to most Somalis, it also overreaches in other exercises of its power.

Meanwhile, the popularity of President Mohamed took a tumble in late 2017 and 2018. Many Somalis welcomed his election in February 2017 with enthusiasm, but almost two years later, he has failed to deliver on many on his unrealistic promises, including ending the conflict with al Shabab. Instead he and the federal government have become mired in a series of paralyzing political crises that have exposed and augmented factionalism in the Somali security forces. He has also displayed an authoritarian streak, arresting and cracking down on political rivals by using their alleged financial ties to outside powers as justification. Particularly his effort to remove from office the speaker of the Somali Parliament almost resulted in a violent confrontation in the parliament in late 2017.

Neither the security situation nor the state of politics in Somalia currently give reason for optimism that the 2020 presidential elections will for the first time truly be on the basis of one-man, one-vote throughout Somalia.

The fact that several years ago, Mogadishu accepted federalism and power decentralization is perhaps the greatest recent political accomplishment. Competition over who controls Mogadishu and crucial resources has for years been a major source of conflict and corruption; and to the extent that more stable, sustainable, and accountable governance has at various times emerged, it has been on the local level. Few outside of Mogadishu, including Hawiye clans who frequently dominate business in Mogadishu, want to be ruled by Mogadishu.

However, there is as yet little agreement on what kind of federalism will be created and what the relative balance of power between the center and subnational states will be. How to generate revenues is a major challenge for both the federal and federal governments. The states do not want to give up land taxation to the federal state; but the federal state strongly dislikes the idea of having to rely only on the tax revenues from fisheries and maritime routes. And the promise of potentially huge mineral resources under the Somali sand only makes the federal versus state competition more intense. How power is devolved matters a lot. The biggest danger is that the exclusionary politics over spoils and war rents that have so long dominated Mogadishu will now become replicated at the local state level.

Amidst these long-term structural challenges, the disagreements between the federal government and federal states significantly worsened in 2018, halting formalization of the constitution and creating a myriad of other severe stabilization challenges. In September 2018, leaders of the federal states of Galmudug, Jubaland, Puntland, South West, and Hirshabelle suspended all ties with the federal government. The regional leaders accused the federal government of failing to provide security in the country and adequately combat al Shabab and fulfill its federal responsibilities toward the federal states. They demanded more autonomy and a greater share of foreign aid, lobbying foreign governments to provide them with aid directly.

Tensions between the separatist Somaliland and Mogadishu are also fiercer and more explosive than they have been in a long time. Meanwhile, Somaliland and Puntland engaged in military skirmishes in the spring of 2018 that threatened to escalate in a full-blown war.

External Actors, Regional Situation, and Donor Support

These federal government-federal state tensions have been exacerbated by the Gulf crisis that pitted Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) against Qatar, and by extension Turkey. All four countries have been intensively involved in Somalia and have been Somalia’s major donors of economic and military support and trading and investment partners. Saudi Arabia and UAE sought to force the federal government into supporting their side. When President Mohamed at first refused such pressure, declaring neutrality and refusing to sever ties with Qatar and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and UAE adopted various punitive political and economic measures. UAE also intensified its efforts to cultivate support among various Somali politicians and within federal states, often frustrating the agenda of the federal government. In response, federal states, often dependent on UAE funds and investment, publicly sided with UAE and Saudi Arabia. Bypassing Mogadishu, several states, including Somaliland, accelerated negotiations with the Emirati conglomerate DP World servicing Emirati strategic interests over a variety of investments, such leases of local ports. Somaliland’s finalization of a Berbera port contract with DP World prompted fury in Mogadishu, with Mogadishu seeking to stop the deal and the Somali parliament prohibiting it from going forward. In April 2018, the Somali government also confiscated millions of dollars from an Emirati airplane, alleging the money was meant for rival politicians. UAE then suspended its aid to Somalia, including the training of SNA forces, and withdrew all of its personnel from Mogadishu. However, UAE has continued cultivating the federal states, sticking to its port agreements with Somaliland regarding the Berbera port and with Puntland regarding the port in Bosaso. It is also reportedly negotiating with the Jubaland government over the development of the Kismayo port, despite objections from Mogadishu.

But President Mohamed subsequently also complicated his relations with Turkey, refusing to castigate Saudi Arabia for the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Kashoggi. Turkey was shocked when in October 2018 President Mohamed sided with Saudi Arabia, again threatening retaliatory measures. Yet Turkey is one of Somalia’s major donors and investors, providing direct budgetary support to the government, training Somali forces, managing the port of Mogadishu, building a variety of infrastructure projects in Somalia, and involved in many commercial deals. Unsuccessfully, Turkey also tried mediate a deal between Somaliland and Mogadishu. Yet President Mohamed sided with Saudi Arabia in its dispute with Canada.

Unrelated to the repercussions of the Gulf Crisis in Somalia, the government of Germany also ended its participation in EU’s military training mission in Somalia in early 2018. The German government cited the slow progress of the development of the SNA and its many challenges. However, Germany promised to retain its support to the civilian structures of Somalia. It has been one of the principal funders of the low-risk defectors’ program.

On the up side, the federal government of Somalia scored a major victory in October 2018, when the European Union for the first time in decades agreed to channel the vast majority of its 2.5-year aid package of €100 million, pledged at the Somalia Partnership Forum in Brussels in July 2019, to the Somali government’s budget. A vote of confidence that the federal government can better control pervasive corruption, this on-budget funding, formally called the State Building and Resilience Contract in Somalia, promises to strengthen the institutional capacities and delivery by the Somali federal government to the Somali population, increasing the government’s legitimacy. Such on-budget funding is also meant to improve the capacity of the federal government to transfer money to federal states, a mechanism expected to mitigate the federal-federal tensions. Whether that hope will indeed materialize, or, in the current federal crisis context, will be seen by the federal states as their defeat, remains to be seen. So does whether Somalia will have the will and capacity not to waste the financial aid through corruption. The disbursement of the funds is to be sequenced and closely monitored and tied to regular assessments against indicators and safeguard measures.

In September 2018, the World Bank also approved its first grant to Somalia in thirty years, with US$60 million for Recurrent Cost and Reform Financing Project and US$20 million for the Domestic Revenue and Public Financial Management Capacity Strengthening Project. The World Bank also promised to collaborate with the Somali government on improving healthcare and education, and access to clean water, energy, and finance for Somali citizens under a program known as Country Partnership Framework. Although agriculture is seen as key for the long-term growth of the economy and job generation, it remains critically vulnerable to shocks, resulting in repeated famines. Thus the main drivers of growth in the short term remain trade, communications, and the financial and transport sectors.


Without more inclusive and accountable governance, violence reduction and stabilization of Somalia will not be sustainably achieved. The long-advocated remedy for Somalia’s troubles – power devolution and governance at the local level – will be eviscerated if Somali national politicians and local powerbrokers are allowed to subvert the state formation processes and continue to engage in exclusionary power grabs without accountability. But equally, authoritarian measures and selective crackdowns on clientelism will exacerbate Somalia’s political faultlines. Although donors and international actors are unable to control Somali politicians and powerbrokers, the outsiders are impotent. They have influence and should exercise it, at least against the most egregious transgressions, such as large land grabs and systematic clan marginalization that breed conflict.

Fundamentally, whether Somalia succeeds in breaking out of decades of conflict, famine, misery, corruption, and mis-governance depends on the Somali people. It depends on whether a sufficient constituency for better governance and less conflict eventually emerges or whether Somali businessmen and politicians continue to find the way to maneuver around conflict or make money from it while the Somali people barely eke out survival amidst the harshest conditions without mobilizing for change.

To reduce violent conflict and enhance stabilization, the Somali government and international actors can encourage the federal government and federal states to increase efforts to formalize the constitution and agree on an acceptable division of resources between the federal government and the federal states. Involving civil society, including women, in constitutional discussion is crucial. The international community also can help sponsor broad-based societal conversation in Somalia about justice, accountability, and reconciliation – to inform the formalization of the constitutional and other political processes. Such processes can include the development of disarmament, demobilization, justice, accountability, and reconciliation processes for Somali armed actors beyond al Shabab. More broadly, they can help Somalia move away from a militarization of Somali society toward addressing the root causes of conflict – namely, exclusion, clan discrimination, debilitating corruption, and systematic impunity.

The international community can also help foster a more cooperative regional environment, assisting in reconciliation between the federal government of Somalia and UAE.

  • Footnotes
    1. “The Impact of New Funding Uncertainties on AMISOM,” Peace and Security Council Report, Institute for Security Studies, March 7, 2018,
    2. Author’s interviews with Somali and international political analysts, UN officials, and Somali NGO representatives, Mogadishu, December 2017.
    3. London Conference: Somalia, May 11, 2017, “Security Pact,”
    4. “Q&A with Somalia’s National Security Advisor Abdisaid Ali: Somalia Charts Security Transition,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, July 17, 2018,
    5. Author’s interviews with officers of the SNA, former Ministry of Defense officials, members of Somalia’s parliament defense committee, and international security advisors in Somalia, Mogadishu, December 2017.
    6. “Managing the Disruptive Aftermath of Somalia’s Worst Terror Attack,” International Crisis Group, Africa Briefing No, 131, October 20, 2017,; and Cedric Barnes and Zakaria Yusuf, “Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out,” International Crisis Group, June 27, 2016,
    7. United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2431 (2018), S/RES/2431 (2018),
    8. Journalists for Justice, “Black and White: Kenya’s Criminal Racket in Somalia,” Nairobi, November 2015,’s%20Criminal%20Racket%20in%20Somalia.pdf.
    9. Paul Williams, “After AMISOM: What Will It Take to Secure Somalia?” African Arguments, October 11, 2018,
    10. Author’s interviews with UN officials, other humanitarian actors, international security advisors, and Somali security analysts, Mogadishu, December 2017.
    11. Author’s interviews with Somali security analysts and Somali businessmen, Mogadishu, December 2017.
    12. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Somalia: 2018 Humanitarian Needs Overview,” November 2017,
    13. Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Puntland’s Problems,” Foreign, June 15, 2017,
    14. Author’s interviews with Somali government officials and implementing partners, Mogadishu, December 2017.
    15. Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Securing Somalia?”, February 20, 2017,
    16. Author’s interviews with Somali NGO representatives, businessmen, intelligence officers, members of parliament, and international humanitarian actors, Mogadishu, December 2017.
    17. Author’s interviews with Somali businessmen, NGO representatives, journalists, and military officials as well as international political analysts, Mogadishu, December 2017.
    18. For a review of various justice mechanisms in Somalia, see, for example, Andre Le Sage, “Stateless Justice in Somalia: Formal and Informal Rule of Law Initiatives,” Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, July 2005,
    19. International Crisis Group, “Somalia and the Gulf Crisis,” Africa Report No. 260, June 5, 2018,
    20. International Crisis Group, “The United Arab Emirates in the Horn of Africa,” Crisis Group Middle East Briefing No. 65, November 6, 2018,
    21. “Germany to End Participation in EU Military Mission in Somalia,” Deutsche Welle, February 1, 2018,
    22. Delegation of the European Union to Somalia, “Somalia: Major Step in EU Support to State-Building,” Press Release, October 14, 2018,
    23. George Obulutsa, “World Bank Approves First Grants to Somalia in 30 Years,” Reuters, September 26, 2018,